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The US Sanctions System… An Effective Weapon or an Expendable Tool?

On June 1, 2023, the US Treasury Department announced new sanctions against Sudan. These sanctions singled out companies linked to each of the Sudanese Armed Forces led by Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and the “Quick Support” forces led by Muhammad Hamdan Dagalo (Hamedti), due to their “failure” to abide by the Saudi-American mediated ceasefire agreement. After the announcement of these sanctions, US administration officials issued successive statements confirming that they aim to “hold accountable those responsible for undermining peace, security and stability in Sudan,” and that the United States “stands with civilians against those who support violence against the Sudanese people.”

But the devil is in the details. Criticism quickly poured in on President Joe Biden’s administration for its “leniency” in its sanctions on the one hand, and the excessive use of these sanctions on the other hand, which raised many questions about the effectiveness of the US sanctions system in general, and whether the administration The US has consumed this system by imposing sanctions “without claws”. This is what Asharq Al-Awsat reviewed in a series of private interviews.

A citizen inspects the destruction of his house in Khartoum (AFP)

Sudan and US sanctions

Some critics of the latest sanctions question the extent of their effectiveness, especially given that they do not mention specific names. Among them is prominent Republican Senator Jim Risch, who directed harsh criticism of the Biden administration, considering that the recent sanctions “do not represent half a step towards what should happen.”

Reish shed light on the content of the sanctions, pointing out that “they do not hold the senior individuals responsible for the catastrophic situation in Sudan responsible for what is happening, nor do they affect those most responsible for the destabilization of the region and the constant intimidation of the Sudanese people.”

Harsh words, in the light of which Asharq Al-Awsat asked the US State Department about the effectiveness of the sanctions imposed in changing the current equation in Sudan, and it responded by saying that “Treasury sanctions on business networks and funds associated with the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Armed Support Forces aim to impede their ability to continue the conflict.” “, stressing that “this step, despite its importance, is only the first step.”

Republican Senator Jim Risch

When Senator Jim Risch’s statement was presented to the State Department, as part of a request to respond to his criticisms, a State Department official – who asked not to be named – said in exclusive statements to Asharq Al-Awsat: “According to US law, we cannot disclose entry visa records or provide details of entry visas.” about who will be affected. But we will share with you that we have identified more than 12 people who will be subject to visa restrictions within these sanctions, and this will include members of the Rapid Support Forces, the army, and external saboteurs, in addition to people associated with the former regime of Al-Bashir (former President Omar Al-Bashir).

But that response was not welcomed by Risch, who chairs the Republicans on the Foreign Relations Committee. Quite the contrary, the State Department’s response elicited a condemning response from Reish, who accused, in statements to Asharq Al-Awsat, the Biden administration of adopting easy options, saying: “Despite clear evidence of gross human rights violations by senior leaders in the Military Council, the Biden administration continues to In choosing the easy options, and being lenient with the Sudanese generals. Secret sanctions on entry visas are an appropriate and safe option, but the Sudanese people deserve to see real accountability from us.”

Cameron Hudson, a senior research fellow in the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, agrees with Risch’s approach, saying that the importance of any sanctions lies in their content, and in the case of Sudan “it was necessary for the United States to send a more decisive message.” In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Hudson, who worked as a chief of staff in the office of the Special Envoy to Sudan, said: “It seems that the United States is relying on an approach in Sudan through which it seeks to return the parties to the situation before April 15 (April) and return to negotiations.” On security sector reform and the formation of a transitional government. That is why it did not impose individual sanctions on the generals, because it needs them in future political talks.

Cameron Hudson

Hudson continued: «It is a delusional thinking that we can return to the road map before the war. The war elf cannot be put back on his lantern. I agree with Senator Risch and the calls for sanctions against Sudan’s leaders. We need to send a message that they do not have the legitimacy to decide the fate of the country, and sanctions help send that message.”

Hudson pointed to an important loophole in the US sanctions system, related to the importance of coordinating with allies in any sanctions to ensure their effectiveness. He stressed the importance of international consensus on any sanctions of this kind in order for them to have a long-term effect.

US sanctions and their effectiveness

The US sanctions card is the major pressure card on which successive Republican and Democratic administrations relied to reach a certain political outcome. Mike Levitt, a former official at the US Treasury Department, says, “The criteria for imposing sanctions are technical and technical criteria that are mainly based on policies,” adding that “It is not about what the Republicans or Democrats want, but rather focuses heavily on American politics.”

However, according to the numbers, it is rare for the unilateral US sanctions to achieve their goals. For example, a study by the Peterson Institute for International Economics indicates that unilateral US sanctions between 1970 and 1997 achieved their goals by only 13 percent, and cost the US economy between $15 and $19 million annually.

Levitt says that the effectiveness of US sanctions “depends primarily on the effectiveness of their imposition and actual implementation.”

Referring to the repeated criticism of US administrations that their sanctions are ineffective when imposed in the form of freezing assets in the United States or preventing obtaining travel visas, especially if the concerned authorities do not have assets of this kind in the United States, and do not seek to visit them, Michael Singh, Kabir agreed. Researchers at The Washington Institute, and the former director of the Middle East and Iran office at the White House, agree on this approach, noting that US sanctions are “less effective when the sanctioned groups do not have any relationship with the West.”

Michael Singh

Singh added in an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat: “Other reasons for the ineffectiveness of sanctions are when we cannot implement them as necessary, or when their goals are too ambitious. For example, the travel ban against officials of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard is symbolic because they do not travel to the West, and the countries they travel to, such as Iraq, for example, do not cooperate with the imposition of the ban. Singh offers an interesting approach, saying: “Sanctions are more effective when we impose them on our allies and not our opponents, for example in trade disputes, there are greater incentives for both sides to reach a settlement and get back on track.”

For his part, Levitt says that although “many of the sanctioned organizations do not have assets, or assets of value, in the United States of America, the sanctions make it difficult for them to obtain dollars, and the majority of the global economy depends on the use of dollars. There are ramifications for any financial institution around the world wanting to do business with these entities. This leads to a dynamic that other countries and multilateral organizations think about.

Excessive penalties

However, some warn that excessive imposition of unilateral sanctions may prompt US allies and adversaries to try to distance themselves from the dollar in order to avoid its consequences.

Michael Pregent, a senior researcher at the Hudson Institute, who worked for years at the US Defense Intelligence Agency, points out that for this reason countries such as China, Russia, India and Brazil seek coordination to find mechanisms to bypass US sanctions, warning in an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat: “If it succeeds, After these mechanisms, and the United States was unable to use the dollar and the American banking system as an economic tool to urge a country to change its position on certain issues, we will certainly become less effective.

This is what the director of international economics at the Council on Foreign Relations, Ben Steele, warned about, who likened the overuse of the sanctions regime to the overuse of antibiotics, saying: “US financial sanctions that use dollars are like the overuse of antibiotics…if the drug is prescribed to everyone.” Bacteria transform to obtain antibiotic-resistant strains, and this is what we are currently witnessing in the global financial markets.

To put things in perspective, official figures from the US Treasury Department estimated that, at the end of 2021, it had sanctioned 9,421 organizations and individuals, a 900 percent increase compared to the past twenty years.

In 2022, for example, the Treasury Department added 2,549 new listings to the sanctions lists and removed only 225 of them.

Looking at the details of these sanctions for the year 2022, most of them relate to Russia due to its war with Ukraine, but there are other sanctions that included China and the regime in Syria, and drug traffickers in Mexico and Sudan.

Max Boot, senior researcher in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, points to a series of sanctions that did not lead to an actual change in policies. He mentions, in an article in the Washington Post, the sanctions imposed on Cuba since 1960 and then the complete blockade of the country. In 1962, he says: “Today, the communist regime remains the same.” He also talks about the sanctions against North Korea, which began “since 1950 and expanded significantly in 2006. Today, the regime remains the same.”

Bot says that the sanctions against Iran and the policy of maximum pressure by former President Donald Trump did not succeed in distancing the regime in Tehran from seeking to develop a nuclear weapon, according to what the West believes. The same applies to sanctions against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. He also talks about the sanctions against Russia, “which did not prevent (President Vladimir) Putin from continuing his war on Ukraine.”

Michael Pregent

But Pregent opposes this approach, criticizing the suggestion that the goal of the sanctions is to change regimes. He says: “The aim of the sanctions was to prove to countries, such as Cuba and North Korea, that they cannot become prosperous and will be linked to countries like Russia and Iran that have predatory terms for loans.” Pregent admits that policies of this kind would push the sanctioned countries into the bosom of China and Russia, warning that if the United States wants its sanctions policy to succeed, it must also be keen to impose sanctions on countries such as China to constrain it.

For his part, Singh points out that when the target of sanctions is “ambitious, such as sanctions against Iran, North Korea, or Venezuela, they do not work well in isolation, because the targeted regimes are careful to give in to external pressures despite the cost, and do not prioritize the interest of their economy and people over the interest of the regime. In addition, the policies that the United States is asking these countries to abandon, such as not seeking to acquire nuclear weapons and suppressing peoples, are policies that these regimes deem essential to their continuation.

Do sanctions hurt people more than regimes?

In response to the criticism that the people are paying the price of US sanctions at a time when officials have become experts in evading these sanctions, Pregent tells Asharq Al-Awsat: “I will not say that the sanctions do not harm the people, and that they did not harm the Iraqi people or the people of North Korea.” or Cuba. But the rulers of these countries are constantly harming their people. They are rich and use the country’s resources to fund their wealth and agendas. So the argument that says that had it not been for the sanctions, Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong Un, or Fidel Castro would have distributed their wealth in the country to their people, is an argument that is refuted by all historical facts.

In the example of Sudan, when Al-Sharq Al-Awsat asked Hudson whether the recent sanctions would affect the Sudanese people more than their impact on those responsible for the crisis, he explained, saying: “The previous sanctions that affected the Sudanese people were during the comprehensive trade blockade in 1997 and the inclusion of Sudan on the lists of terrorism.” In 1993. These sanctions prevented commercial exchanges and investment flows to Sudan and imposed a very high cost on the country’s reputation. The war is currently hurting Sudan’s reputation and does not help attract trade and investments to it. But sanctions on individuals will not have the same effect as a comprehensive blockade.

Al-Burhan and “Hamedti” in one of their meetings before the outbreak of the conflict (AFP)

However, Hudson quickly reminded that sanctions are not the only option before the United States, directing harsh criticism of the Biden administration’s “timid” diplomacy. He pointed out that “the United States did not make a great diplomatic effort to try to influence the situation in Sudan. We initially sent mid-level diplomats to Jeddah to negotiate a cease-fire. Hudson notes that US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken “interfered slightly by phone” at the beginning of the crisis, and concluded, “We did not try to gather an international contact group and did not appoint higher-level diplomats to negotiate an agreement.” I can say that Washington has done the least it can do to respond to this crisis.

Who has the right to issue sanctions in the US administration?

US President The US President has the power to declare a national emergency if the foreign policy, national security, or economy of the United States is threatened


The Secretary of the Treasury has the authority to impose sanctions, in consultation with the Secretary of State. The Secretary of the Treasury directs the Director of OFAC, who in turn signs off on the sanctions actions.


Congress has the power to pass new sanctions programs or to strengthen existing ones

humanitarian exceptions

In December 2022, the US Treasury approved humanitarian exemptions from the sanctions imposed in confirmation of UN Security Council Resolution 2664 related to supporting humanitarian exemptions and facilitating the delivery of humanitarian aid despite the sanctions regimes.

Through this circular, four categories of US sanctions are exempted:

1- Official business of the US government

2- The official business of some international non-governmental organizations and entities

3- Disaster relief, health services, democracy and education support activities, environmental protection and peacebuilding

4- Agricultural commodities, medicines, medical devices and their spare parts and maintenance

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